When London really was built back better
This is an eloquent book that describes the architecture, culture, topography, and social life of a vibrant city
This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
London 1870-1914: A City at its Zenith by Andrew Saint (Lund Humphries, £25)
London, most fascinating of great cities, has been very badly damaged by dreadful developments in recent years, many of them money-led, but devoid of any feeling for context or even for human beings. Meanwhile the wreckage of whole areas through ideological “redevelopment” and the imposition of bog-standard, dysfunctional, leaking, Modernist blocks to house large numbers of unfortunate people has blighted many lives and ruined large parts of the capital.
Yet there was a time when the place was immeasurably improved, graced by some marvellous, real, finely crafted architecture, so that by 1914 London was a much better place than it had been in the middle of the nineteenth century, although its governance was peculiarly disjointed, unlike many Continental cities.
By 1914 it had acquired fine schools and many other building types, designed by more than competent architects worthy of the name; vast schemes for sewers and water-supply had greatly improved sanitation; the nettle of housing the working classes had started to be grasped; public transport, including underground railways and electric tramways, was being developed; places for entertainment were often magnificent and varied; public houses offered comfort, splendid surroundings, and glittering splendour to quite ordinary citizens; and architecture for both government and commerce often rose nobly to whatever occasion was demanded.
Andrew Saint has written an eloquent book in which he describes the architecture, culture, topography, and social life of a vibrant city which grew rapidly as it drew in vast numbers of people from far and wide. It is a story of triumphant improvement in the face of formidable problems. He encapsulates a decade in each of his chapters, illustrated with appropriate images, many of them showing buildings that unhappily have been lost, and not replaced by anything better.
I have long been aware of the uncomfortable fact that disasters are needed before anything galvanises politicians into action, even though danger is often imminent, and more than obvious to the clear-sighted.
He encapsulates a decade in each of his chapters, illustrated with appropriate images showing buildings that unhappily have been lost
For example, it took ferocious Asiatic Cholera epidemics in the 1830s to force Parliament to authorise the establishment of the first cemeteries; it required the “Great Stink” (1858) of the grotesquely polluted Thames to get politicians to legislate enabling the formation of the huge schemes of embanking the river and constructing massive sewers and pumping-stations; and it needed the activities of Jack the Ripper in the Autumn of 1888 to draw attention to the vile conditions of parts of London’s East End, resulting in the passing of the Housing of the Working Classes Act in 1890.
Saint interestingly points out that “the dead have always led the way in suburbanisation”, making one reflect on the establishment of those great cemeteries such as All Souls, Kensal Green and the South Metropolitan, Norwood in the 1830s. Golders Green Crematorium (opened 1902) preceded Hampstead Garden Suburb, planned from 1905 (the origins of both, like many innovations of the time, lay in Germany), and even the Tube.
Saint’s study is enlivened not only by his excellent accounts of how London was transformed by the development of railways, education, art, crafts, and much else, but by the dramatis personæ he introduces, including the poet, Ernest Christopher Dowson (1867-1900), to whom he devotes several pages when describing London in the 1890s, the heyday of Decadence, and quotes in full Dowson’s most celebrated poem, modelled on the first Ode in Book IV of Horace.
The brilliant illustrator, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-98) found Dowson “grubby”, and indeed the poet’s “Cynara”, Ellen Adelaide “Missie” Foltinowicz (1878-1903), was only 12 when he first met her serving in The Poland restaurant in Sherwood Street. Her “pale, lost lilies” kept Dowson in thrall, and when eventually “Missie” got bored with her almost permanently drunk and tubercular admirer and married a tailor, August Noelte, the poet suffered great mental anguish. “Missie” was less than faithful to Noelte, and eventually perished after a botched abortion aged only 25.
Of course there was also the spectacle of Oscar Wilde, out of control in 1893-5, drinking with Dowson and others, bedding messenger-boys in selected hotels, then, ignoring the entreaties of his friends, staying on in London to be arrested in the Cadogan Hotel. In the aftermath of that, many careers were engulfed, not least that of Beardsley, who, though not himself homosexual, was tarnished by association, not least through his extraordinarily lascivious illustrations for Wilde’s Salome (1894).
Kenneth Clark (1903-83), in the epilogue to his The Gothic Revival (originally published 1928), wrote that nearly “all the best work of the Revival was done after the death of Gilbert Scott” (1878), a statement with which I would wholeheartedly agree. However, Saint gives churches only scant attention, with mentions of St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens (1884-7), The Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell (1887-8), and Westminster Cathedral (1895-1903) as some examples.
I get the impression he is rather bored by ecclesiastical architecture and the rather fraught religious atmosphere of the time
Yet there were many others deserving of notice. I get the impression he is rather bored by ecclesiastical architecture and the rather fraught religious atmosphere of the time: the secular side of things seems much more congenial to him.
There is another rather odd and slightly unnerving aspect in his book: part of it is written in the present tense, then, without warning, it veers into the past. However, that is a minor irritation: London 1870-1914 is a rewarding read, tight, condensed, judiciously and unusually illustrated, with many quirky insights and deft asides.
Finally, the publishers, Lund Humphries, are to be congratulated on yet another very handsome production, decently printed on good paper, and stoutly bound.
I do wonder, however, when books are printed in China, as this one is: there are plenty of sound, professional, competent printers and paper-makers in the islands of what some purists now refer to as “The Atlantic Archipelago”, so using outfits that undercut them at the moment may put many old-established firms out of business. What then?
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe